The poems of Komunyakaa’s Magic City are often discussed in relationship to the poet’s life and to the historical context of the 1950s and 1960s. Angela M. Salas, for example, argues in an article in College Literature, ‘‘In Magic City Komunyakaa makes an imaginative return to his childhood home of Bogalusa, Louisiana.’’ She adds that the volume is ‘‘marked by the time and place Komunyakaa reflects upon: the pre-Civil Rights, Jim Crow South.’’ Salas also locates Komunyakaa’s themes within this framework, calling the collection ‘‘an extended meditation upon race, class, and gender, and how these things mark, indeed, vex, the lives of those with whom Komunyakaa grew up.’’
There is little doubt that the poems of Magic City, including ‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook,’’ can be read in just such a manner. At the same time, however, it is possible to overlook Komunyakaa’s supreme artistry by concentrating solely on historical and autobiographical details. He is a master craftsman, a poet who uses the devices of poetry so deftly that the brilliance can go unnoticed in the sheer power of the poem. Therefore, while ‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook’’ is surely a poem about rage, grief, fear, pride, danger, and beauty, set in an historic period in the South, it is also a poem that can be fruitfully discussed in terms of technique. In other words, studying how the poem means can be an important aspect of determining what the poems means.
Perhaps the most noticeable device employed by Komunyakaa in ‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook’’ is his prosody, the metrical and rhythmic quality of the work. As David Wojahn remarks in a review of Pleasure Dome in Poetry:
“[Komunyakaa has] found a prosody so characteristic that it’s hard to mistake one of his stanzas for anyone else’s. When these qualities come together at their frequent best, the writing has an implosive quality that makes even his shortest lyrics quite powerful.”
In other words, although Komunyakaa does not write in regular meter, the overall rhythmical quality of his work is not only structural but essential to the meaning of the poem itself. As Wojahn continues, ‘‘[Komunyakaa] favors short lines, few of them longer than three-beats, and surprising enjambments. . . . His writing has a jittery and hyper-kinetic quality.’’
In ‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook’’ there are two strong influences on Komunyakaa’s prosody: jazz and the sounds of a basketball game. Fran Gordon, introducing an interview with the poet in Poets & Writers magazine, notes that ‘‘Komunyakaa was raised on the blues and jazz of his birthplace.’’ Indeed, Komunyakaa makes frequent reference to the influence of jazz on his work in interviews, speeches, and essays.
More than melody, more than lyrics, it is rhythm that makes jazz jazz. Specifically, musicians use syncopation, the unexpected accenting of a note, to delight and surprise listeners. Four-four time, also called common time because of its prevalence in the music of Western culture, is a musical meter that has four beats to each measure of music. Listeners expect to hear the rhythmic stresses in four-four time on each of four beats to the measure, with the strongest stress on the first beat. This is regardless of the number of notes in the measure. In a measure comprised of eighth notes in four-four time, for example, there would still be four beats in a measure, but there would be eight notes. In this case, a listener would expect an accented downbeat followed by an unaccented upbeat, for a total of four accented downbeats and four unaccented upbeats. In syncopated rhythms, however, the stress might fall on the upbeat, rather than the downbeat. Further, a musician might unexpectedly lengthen or shorten a note, forcing the stress to fall just off the beat. The overall effect is one of surprise. Indeed, ragtime music, the early precursor to jazz, was so called because of the ‘‘raggedy’’ rhythms it employed, with its accents in unexpected places.
The ‘‘jittery and hyper-kinetic’’ quality that Wojahn refers to in Komunyakaa’s poetry is much like the use of syncopation in jazz. Komunyakaa increases this effect through his use of enjambment, a device through which a poet does not end a line with a grammatical resting place, punctuated with a period or a comma. That is, the syntactical unit, such as a sentence, clause, or phrase, is carried on to the next line rather than ending with the line. This forces the reader to continue to the next line to understand the meaning of the sentence, clause, or phrase. As a corollary, enjambment also often results in pauses or stops called ‘‘caesuras’’ in the middle of a line. Again, the unexpected flow of meaning across lines juxtaposed with a sudden caesura midline throws off the reader’s expectations, in much the same way that jazz rhythms do, with sudden stops, starts, and unexpected accents.
Similarly, the noises of a basketball game are also rhythmic, although not regular. The dribbling of the ball down the court makes strong beats that speed up or slow down, depending on the play, the player, and the pace of the game. Thus, the downward motion of the ball hitting the floor or ground can be likened to the downbeat in a piece of music, with the upward motion of the ball to the player’s hands similar to the upbeat. When a player speeds up play, the beats come faster, and at times, unexpectedly. It is important for players to shift their rhythms in order to mask their intentions. Otherwise, the opposing players will be able to read the play, and the player will not have a shot on the basket. Like jazz, and poetry, basketball depends on surprise, varying rhythms, speed, and the drive to the goal.
It is also possible to connect jazz, basketball, and poetry with a discussion of, oddly enough, feet. The jazz player must keep track of the beat in order to vary, disguise, and play with the rhythm; the player will often do so by tapping a foot. With his or her foot marking the regular beat, he or she is free to improvise and swing the rhythm. Likewise, in basketball, the player must keep close track of his or her feet, timing dribbles to his or her movement down the court in order to avoid a double-dribble penalty. Fancy footwork is essential for basketball.
Unexpectedly, it is also possible to talk about poetry in terms of feet. In poetry, accented and unaccented syllables are grouped together in units called feet. Komunyakaa employs what is known as ‘‘sprung rhythm’’ in ‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook.’’ Sprung rhythm is a form of irregular feet developed by the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in the nineteenth century. In sprung rhythm, an accented syllable is followed by an unspecified number of unaccented syllables, comprising a foot of poetry. In ‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook,’’ for example, in line 1, there are three feet. The first foot has one accented syllable followed by an unaccented syllable. The second foot repeats this pattern. The third foot, however, has an accented syllable, followed by two unaccented syllables in line 1 and then a third unaccented syllable in line 2.
The carryover of feet between lines mirrors Komunyakaa’s use of grammatical enjambment. Thus, not only does a syntactical unit such as a sentence, clause, or phrase become divided up in unexpected ways, so, too, do the metrical units of feet spill from one line to the next in surprising ways. The overall effect is to throw the reader off guard in every way. Readers must be alert to Komunyakaa’s movement with words and rhythms in order to keep track of the poem itself.
Yet another device used by jazz musicians is counterpoint. In counterpoint, two melodic lines move against each other. In jazz, this is further complicated by the unexpected rhythms. Thus, in ragtime piano, for example, the left hand might follow one melodic line and rhythm while the right hand traces another. The two hands thus work apart, and together, in a complicated and complex manner.
In ‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook,’’ Komunyakaa opposes what appears to be a local pickup basketball game with the larger picture of race relations in America. The undercurrents of rage move raggedly and unexpectedly against the regular slap of the policeman’s baton. Just as the jazz musician and the basketball player hide their intentions until the surprising moment of revelation, Komunyakaa suggests that the young men playing ball also hide their intentions from the white power structures of their time. Their fancy footwork, feints, lunges and dives in the basketball game mirror not only the rhythms of the poem but also the dissembling they must do in order to survive in a country that has stacked power against them.
Komunyakaa’s deft handling of jazz rhythms, basketball imagery and sounds, and metrical feet parallels the magical movement of the young basketball stars, who play not only for a win but for their very lives. He augments his meaning in the poem through his prosody, demonstrating his mastery of sound and sense, music and rhythm, image and allusion. ‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook’’ is a swing tune, a mourning dance, a demonstration of remarkable prosody, and a treatise on Jim Crow, all at the same time. The attentive reader, like the listener of jazz and the basketball aficionado, will discover something new with each reading of the poem.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Yusef Komunyakaa, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009
Diane Andrews Henningfeld, Critical Essay on ‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.